Archive for the 'park' Category

27
Dec
15

Facelift?

After a long while, I made another visit to Byxbee Park in Palo Alto yesterday, which is now much larger than before but also quite bleak.

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The parts of the garbage dump that were opened more recently are large, unnatural, and unnaturally bald mounds that loom over the more attractively sculpted hills closest to the bay. The work is not quite done, and some of the slopes are just plain clay with pipes and other machinery sticking up at regular intervals.

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You can get a better workout now that the place is larger, but it used to be more human scale. It was unkempt, but more inviting. I sort of miss the quirky old art installations that have been removed. No more midden-hillocks for the ground squirrels to turn into Swiss cheese. The methane flare-off has disappeared, and the “keyhole” laid out in shellfish around it has been erased. The shellfish paths have been paved over. Weird rivers of rock have been added. The chevrons have been made severely straight.

On the positive side, the trails over the dump connect to the trails through the salt marsh behind it, so you can enter from the frontage road along the 101. Also, birds still love the place. Some of the views are stunningly beautiful.

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You can still surprise a hare hopping quietly along the trail.

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And people come here to do unusual things, like the two guys  exercising their bald eagle.

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It may not be natural, but it’s better that someone cares enough to rescue it and do what can be done.

05
Oct
14

Official History

A few weeks ago, shortly after take-off from New York’s JKF,  I looked out of my airplane porthole and saw an unmistakable garbage dump, on a spit of land sticking out like a hitch hiker’s thumb into a wide river. I just managed to snap a picture before it was lost from view. The stylized shape and the unnatural parched grass cover are each a dead giveaway, as are the straight trails following the precise angles of this man-made hill.

croton point focus

Croton Point landfill. Click to see a larger image.

A little scouting on Google Maps and Google Earth showed this to be the centerpiece of Croton Point Park, in Westchester. It lies just north of Ossining, within view of the famed Sing Sing prison. A history of the park explains that the point has served its humble purpose for a long time: it was once a Native American oyster shell midden. Started as early as 7000 years ago, it is apparently the oldest shell mound found on the East Coast. The official history does not mention that the current park is laid out on top of a more modern garbage dump. That silence is also part of the perennial landfill pattern. Native American garbage, less noxious to start with, has been purified by time. Our own garbage is a different matter altogether and is still unmentionable.

I do wonder how it happens. Perhaps someone wrote a history that referred to the dump and was made to erase all reference to it by reviewers who were afraid to scare off the public? Or did the writer not even think to include it? Judging by my own experience of group encounters with the less ideal contours of reality, either of these possibilities is thoroughly plausible.

The New York Times manages this negotiation with the unpleasant just a little bit better in a 1990 article about an exhibition of local folk tales: “MONEY HILL is no longer shown on any Westchester map, and if it once was haunted the witches have fled the old knoll on Croton Point. The Indian trinkets and pirate gold reputed to be buried there – which gave the hill its name – will not be found now. The site is buried under the thousands of tons of waste that cover what is now a landfill.”

Just two years earlier, the news was even more explicit: “THE 600 acres of Croton Point once formed one of the largest tidal marshes on the Hudson River. After 50 years as the site of an active county dump, however, the area is judged by environmentalists to be a health hazard. A Federal judge last month called the landfill, which was closed in 1986, an environmental time bomb.” Again we are grateful to the New York Times in reporting on several lawsuits over toxic waste and possible groundwater pollution from the site. Imagine the poisoned plume that spreads from what must be an unlined dump, old as it is.

That’s why I love garbage, repulsive as it is. No matter how much it is hidden, erased, or denied, it sticks around, stubbornly bearing witness to what we most like to forget.

28
Sep
09

Garbage Hymns

Randy Ludacer, Singing about Packaging on Fresh Kills

Randy Ludacer, Singing about Packaging on Fresh Kills

Randy Ludacer is a package designer. He is responsible for the public face of such essential items as lemon-scented insoles, table cloths and pillow covers, furry rocker chairs and retro stools, composters, video game controllers, bath salts for jet lag relief, and Bling-it-on peel-and-stick crystals, best described as spangles for underage females. Also Randy is a singer-songwriter. Naturally, some of his songs are also about packaging, including “The Prettiest Package,” “Expiration Date,” “Pop Top Ring,” “Can Of Worms” and the immortal “This Landfill Is Your Landfill.”

Last Saturday, Randy performed his packaging songs to a select audience on top of the 150 million tons of trash contained in the Fresh Kills landfill, which is, naturally, the very best place to do so. Unfortunately, procedures kept the fans down to a modest number. The audience had to be bused in, in accordance with San protocol—after we signed release forms holding the Department of Sanitation harmless for whatever horrors might befall us during or in the wake of the concert. There were. like, 20 seats on the bus.

But there we were, in the great outdoors, with a view of the Arthur Kill and the ruins of New Jersey to the west, the Manhattan skyline to the north, and a wildlife refuge to the east. Randy sang and accompanied himself on his Tropicana box guitar, keeping an admirable balance on the garbage tightrope. It’s not easy being serious about garbage without getting heavy-handed.

Us, the Audience (and a Methane Well in the Background)

Us, the Audience (and a Methane Well in the Background)

The wind was brisk and rustled steadily in the late-season grass. The baby in the audience complained now and again. We clapped very nicely after every song, while the garbage kept very quiet underfoot.

Meanwhile, as Randy pointed out in one of his songs,  “Through the layers of the landfill, through/the garbage and the rubble, every tire slowly/rises to the surface like a bubble. This landfill/is our landfill. It was made for you and me.”

Just in case you want to know more about Fresh Kills? Try love letters and cabbage leaves About the old dump and the new park forming? More interested in the cheap thrills of Fresh Kills? Then you’ll want to take a look at landscape inspirations.

28
Apr
09

the piles behind me

I’ve got myself into a dilemma much like Tristram Shandy’s, whose life went by much faster than he was able to record it. Only my problem is that every time I get myself up to look for my ancient garbage, I create more of it in additional places. All of which will require more research, more getting myself up to look, more creating of garbage in hitherto unsuspected places, more research, more getting up, etc., etc. Infinite regress has already reared its monstrous head even though to date I have gone to look only for the largest quantities of my own historical trash. If I tried to locate the trash I’ve left all over the world while traveling, I would be dead before I properly documented my first 10 years.

Barneveld Landfill

Barneveld Landfill

My current sojourn in the Netherlands is associated with a heap of trash that,  as of this writing, has no known destination. All I know is where it does not go—the dump operated by the enterprise that collects the garbage at my temporary address. I’m not sure the locals agree about many things, but they do agree that the country is too small to fill it up with rubbish.

I had expected to be able to participate in food and green waste composting, but no such luck. I live in a place with a special dispensation and a solid refusal to deal with separate collections. All the trash I currently create, including those perfectly innocent scraps and peels, is going into purgatory somewhere unidentified, to burn for my sins.

I don’t even want to begin to think about what might happen to discards produced when I visit my folks.

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Dumping Garbage Prohibited - Gevudo, Dordrecht

On the other hand, the considerable quantity of tissues I unwillingly used up in consequence of a cold while traveling to Heerjansdam to look for my childhood trash (see Buitenland’s Garbage, Zwijndrecht, Preserve, Times Two, Transmigration of Matter, and Pretty Picture) does have a known destination: the Dordrecht incinerator, where the visitor is summarily forbidden to dump his “dirt,” the standard term for garbage in local parlance.  The country’s only hospital waste incinerator is located here as well.

Next to the incinerator is a working landfill, where I presume the fly ash goes. It rises like Table Mountain above the surrounding flat lands, ominous and foreboding.

A little further east, there is bound to be more garbage because I found a ski slope, a cycle track, and a golf course—sure signs of waste underfoot. The ski slope is in disrepair, as Dutch people have generally evinced a preference for the Alps over tricked-out, spiffed-up garbage dumps. The ski lift is nothing but a downed clothesline in the grass, and the squares of corrugated plastic snow are sliding off the hillside as if to make up for the lack of human visitors.

In back of the golf course is a huge park, only half tended and almost completely deserted, of breath-taking beauty. Half wetland, half terra firma, hushed in the near fog, slowly awakening from long winter sleep. Despite the immediate proximity of ovens, upland waste, electricity pylons, and railway bridge, the area seems entirely removed from time except the cycles of the seasons.  This is hands down the prettiest garbage dump I have ever visited. I don’t recommend it as a tourist attraction only because too many visitors would spoil the prospect.

Merwelanden, northern end of the Biesbosch

Merwelanden, northern end of the Biesbosch

Yet again further east lies a gigantic garbage dike, following the banks of the river Beneden Merwede for what I guess is a length of approximately 2 kilometers. It runs right into the upper end of one of the national parks, the Biesbosch. Also gorgeous. Also completely unreal.

10
Apr
09

Preserve, Times Two

April 6, 2009, De Bovenmolen, Kijfhoek, the Netherlands

Garbage under the Grass at the Bovenmolen

Garbage under the Grass at the Bovenmolen

When I was a kid, there was a house in the copse of poplars to the right. The people who lived there, a family of vegetable growers, were so withdrawn from the usual affairs of the village that a weird aura hung over the farm. Kids made up stories to explain their otherworldliness. They hid a raving madman in the attic or something like that.

It might not have been quite so extreme, but for sure this family was unusual. On a tour of the village dumpsites, the former alderman of public works told me that he visited these people in the early 1960s with an offer to connect them to water, sewer, and electric services for a reduced price. They declined. They collected rain water, threw their own waste on the dung heap, and lit their house with oil lamps. That was good enough for them. They did without electrical appliances, power tools, radio. Perhaps they used coal for heating and cooking or perhaps—to free themselves from the prying eyes of the coal delivery man—they occasionally chopped down a tree to feed a potbellied stove. Such simplicity may be fine for a monk, but for a tomato grower it is definitely unexpected.

When the people still lived there, simplicity and all, a little bridge spanned the river Devel where there is now an unbroken collar of reeds. And this side of the reeds, under the spring green grass, was another local garbage dump site, active from 1965 or so. The lion’s share of the village garbage went to Zwijndrecht and later to an incinerator in Rotterdam, but anything that was not picked up in regular rounds (because it didn’t fit in the garbage can, for instance) was dumped here.

The dump is a little higher than the surrounding land. A metal plate in the grass gives access, according to my alderman, to sampling equipment in the ground that makes it possible to monitor the latter-day activities of my leftovers. But this dump  is not on any of the registers of monitored sites that I can find. Neither the national nor the provincial authorities have the Bovenmolen on any of their lists.

Despite the fact that it has been enriched with garbage, the area is being returned to Mother Nature, more or less. The house has been removed. You can’t cross the river to get into that copse unless you have a boat. If you look in the right direction, you don’t see the high-speed rail line which starts its descent into the underworld here to cross under the river Oude Maas nearby. The preserve is being reforested, after having been bare of trees except for windbreaks around farms for 600 or 700 years. It’s a modest effort and apparently progress has been halted, for now, by action groups who don’t agree with protocols.

On the whole, however, the entire scene speaks to a very different spirit from the way of things some 40 or 50 years ago. I’m almost inclined to grow cautiously optimistic.

25
Mar
09

making a stand, calling a halt

Play a little movie for your mind’s eye: A retreating glacier gradually uncovers a long low valley. Pooling meltwater makes a chain of mirrors for the sky. Slowly the waters rise and a continuous lake forms, dammed up behind the former glacier’s terminal moraine. Eventually, the water breaches the moraine and leaves behind a green world of low-lying meadows dotted with stands of larch and spruce. Humans thread their way through the landscape occasionally, on foot or by canoe, hunting or fishing, building small settlements and giving them up again as their needs and local environmental conditions change.

frozen wetlands

wetlands in winter

The climate warms; the waters rise again. Gradually, salt marsh begins to form at the edges of the meadows as the sea pushes up into the valley, creating an estuary. Cedars move in where the stands of older trees give up their hold. Eventually a vast system of tidal wetlands forms, fed by two separate rivers. Then things stabilize. The seasons come and go for a few thousand years, but each day dawns on a landscape that remains essentially the same, wild and peaceful, quiet though crowded with a rich array of plant and animal species. Reeds rustle in the wind. A bird calls. A rabbit screams as it is carried off by a raptor. The water gurgles in and out of creeks on the tides. Every spring and fall, the squawking, honking, and screeching of migrating birds adds depth to the silence and the wind resonates with the whooshing of a million wings.

European farmers arrive, with their cattle and their agricultural traditions, which tell them that salvation lies in improving the landscape.  They do their best, but for the most part their efforts are modest, the forces of nature too vast, and their tools too simple to permit extensive change. Imagine primitive farm houses, inhabited by ragged families clinging to survival by their fingernails. The cows roam on higher ground in summer. Their owners mow the salt grass meadows for winter feed. Scraggly fences go up here and there, writing the notion of ownership across the valley slopes. A few ditches are dug, painstakingly, in an effort to drain the soggy low-lying meadows. Somehow, they must be made to support more cows, more people, more dreams of wealth and power.

The native hunters and fishermen are pushed back, and hostilities ensue. Dikes are thrown up, but time and weather bring them down again. One farm might fail. Another. A dike might breach, a ditch silt up. A whole family might die of fever. It hardly matters, because others take their place.

Bit by bit, the newcomers begin to sculpt the mud. Land is bought in large swathes. Roads appear. Straggling communities of farms become villages, then burgeon into towns. Brick kilns, tanneries, copper mines, and lumber mills show up in between the meadows. More roads are built. Those made from cedar planks swallow up the last of the valley’s trees.

Large-scale reclamations are attempted, to wring more profit out of the land. It begins to look more and more like something we are familiar with. Ferries and railroads help bring produce and manufactured goods from the hinterland to the coastal cities. Eventually all the upland areas are taken in hand, increasing the pressure to reclaim the marshes. The whole endeavor survives only by growth, like a malignant tumor. The towns grow together, making a single continuous urban wasteland, cross-hatched with roads and bridges, turnpikes, railroads. More and more, the valley is a place to get through, rather than a place to be in.

garbage mountain

garbage mountain

Ports grow larger. The machinery becomes more powerful, and the people more organized. Farms are pushed out by industries. Sounds of engines drown out the sounds of life. The last meadows are done over into suburbs. An airport is built. And all the remaining lowlands are filled up with garbage. Eventually, 51 separate and unregulated garbage dumps sprout in an area no larger than 32 square miles.

As time goes on, it must become increasingly apparent that what was begun as an experiment in improving the landscape is ending up an industrial desert, a slough of suburban despair. The Hackensack Meadowlands are now nothing but a misnomer, a historical name by which to measure the cost of improvement. To wring more profit from this poor place in an orderly manner, the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission is created in 1969. Its task is to help speed the development process for the last remaining virgin land and to regulate garbage disposal, which, it can no longer be ignored, is not just unsightly but outright poisonous.

Then, finally, the movie takes a slightly different turn. Just in time too, I have to say, because the plot is awfully depressing, and besides it seems I’ve seen this movie many times before. Do we have to watch it again?

Hold on. Not long after its inception, the development commission decides that a far better mission would be conservation. Indeed. It throws itself up as the protector of the few unspoilt stretches of wetland, it attempts to restore the natural marshes at the foot of the garbage mountains, it opens an educational park and research facility on the waterfront, as a memorial to the decision never again to allow uncontrolled dumping.

There’s no turning back the clock, of course, no digging up of garbage, no pulling out of roads to make room for the natural salt grass, no removal of housing or factories,  even when they appear to be falling down of their own accord. Upon first arrival, the impression is still overwhelmingly of utter degradation. Finding the park is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Nevertheless, there’s ample reason to be grateful for the tag end of history, because it gives us at least a choice of morals. It’s undoubtedly possible to see the story as yet another illustration of the rapacious predatious nature of humanity or any subgroup thereof (see, for example, my own meadow lands). We’d have reason on our side to figure it’s too little too late. But we might also think about the meadowlands as evidence of our extreme adaptability and resilience. Time to get serious.

15
Aug
08

Rolling Hills

Byxbee Park, on the bay shore in Palo Alto, is both perfectly obvious and perfectly bizarre. Obvious, because it’s in the middle of the Baylands and offers spectacular views of the bay in all directions. Perfectly bizarre, because it is full of machinery and mysterious artifacts that have an allure similar to Stonehenge. Clearly these things were built by humans, and at some effort, but to what earthly purpose?

Pole Field at Byxbee Park, Palo Alto
Pole Field at Byxbee Park, Palo Alto

The artifacts include a carefully planted forest of wooden poles, as well as a piece of equipment that looks like a cross between a rugby goal and wind chimes. K-rail is laid out in chevrons on one hillside. In a dip on the other side, stands a chugging, churning device that looks to have sagged out of plumb a generation ago. A trail of shimmery heat waves comes out the top.

Most startlingly, the place breathes, though not always in the same rhythm. A few years ago, you had to listen carefully for the long-drawn-out, despondent sigh it cast upon the air every two minutes or so. When I visited more recently, the park breathed almost in synch with myself, a little stertorously perhaps, as if suffering from some minor pulmonary obstruction.

There’s a simple explanation for the mystery: Byxbee Park is repurposed landfill, a small section of the Palo Alto city dump that was decommissioned some time in the 1980s. Its artificial hills are studded with pipes and pumps for the capture of leachate and methane. The leachate goes to the purification plant down the road, while the methane is burned off by a flare, that rusty device described above. Construction rubble peeks out of the grassy knolls behind the “habitat reconstruction” signs. The pole forest is in fact “land art,” and so are the K-rail and the rugby chimes.

If you don’t already know, then it’s not so easy to find out what Byxbee Park is. A plaque near the entrance to the park says: “The design of Byxbee Park is the result of a collaboration between the City of Palo Alto, landscape architects Hargreaves Associates, and artists Michael Oppenheimer and Peter Richards. The project was funded in part by the City of Palo Alto refuse collection fees and the Public Art Commission’s Art in Public Places program.” A map identifies the installations by name but declines all effort at explanation. And not a word about garbage apart from those collection fees.

Byxbee’s tight-lipped stance, the likely legacy of the 20th-century’s long romance with “sanitation,” is perhaps understandable. Sanitation was about garbage removal as a public health measure, about whisking garbage away from the curb and making it disappear, as quickly and efficiently as possible. It was about burying garbage where nobody had to worry about it except the sanitation department. It was about creating a world where you could pretend that garbage didn’t really amount to any of your business. That time has passed.

Michael Oppenheimer's Wind Wave installation

Wind Wave installation

The sanitation romance is fading and reality asserts itself. What may once have counted as innocence now only looks like wanton blindness. Most of us are uncomfortably aware of the fact that natural resources are finite and landfill space harder and harder to come by. Sanitary engineering has given way to environmental engineering, and ordinary people are handling (and worrying about) their trash, at least a little. When we drag our garbage cans to the curb and the lid won’t quite go down, we probably don’t feel too good about it.

All the same, it’s still awkward to talk about garbage publicly. The instinct still is to pull away from the subject as if it were sex and we Victorians. Garbage isn’t quite taboo, but it isn’t approved cocktail party conversation either—or something easily owned up to in park signage. It’s not just Byxbee Park where the “habitat restoration” signs don’t specify what type of habitat it is exactly that’s being restored. Bayfront Park, in Menlo Park, doesn’t have a single sign telling you it’s the old town dump. The Sunnyvale dump has signs all over it that say “Sensitive Wildlife Area.” Indeed.

Garbage dumps are just more comfortable telling you how to comport yourself than pointing out what it is you’ve already accomplished.

But perhaps it’s time to learn to think about garbage and to discuss it, not just in the “trashies” subculture but in polite society—if only because we actually feel a little guilty about the amounts of trash we get rid of every week. Or perhaps because we suspect that, whatever happens to it precisely, it’s not a pretty story. Perhaps because looking at our garbage makes it possible to decide whether we want to continue to make more fake hills and fill up more canyons with dangerous stuff that needs to be tended and monitored for decades or longer. If we dig our garbage back up out of the twilit reaches of a guilty conscience, then perhaps the signage at our landfills can be a little more straightforward too?

Totting up donations on the Palo Alto dump

Totting up donations on the Palo Alto dump

At Byxbee right now, the best hint of what’s underfoot is the active fill next door. Its mounds rise at a startling rate, even though only a portion of Palo Alto’s garbage ends up here now. Every time I visit Byxbee, the new dump is a little more present. One day, a new hill rises in the back. Another time, fill activity is going on in front, where there used to be a miscellany of trucks, rubble, equipment, and temporary storage. A third time, a little setup of pumps and other machinery has been moved out of the hollow in which it sat, and the hollow itself is now a big hill. It’s all carefully shaped to a grading plan that is meant to make the garbage look like the Coyote Hills across the bay–a natural feature of the environment.

With only a few years of space left in it, the active dump is expected to reach capacity in 2010, and the entire area will become parkland. As garbage hills go, Byxbee won’t be very large. Nevertheless, if it’s your garbage in there, how is it not special?

Even when you know what it is made of, Byxbee is quite lovely. Or maybe it is actually more lovely. In summer, when the grass is a bright strawberry blond and the sky intensely blue, the garbage is more a distant memory than a looming presence. Christmastime is different. The park has a leaden quality, even on the brighter days. The dull green of the grass and the relatively low light lend the hills an ominous air far more suggestive of the putrid mess underfoot.

In winter, the geese come through on their way south. Large groups, sometimes hundreds of them, camp out for a day or so to rest. The younger members of the flock occupy their time with incessant honking, squawking, and squabbling to rearrange the social order, while the more sedate and peaceable members of the congregation contentedly snack on the new grass.

The pelicans like to doze near Adobe Creek, neatly folded into small, blazing white packages from which occasionally a gawky long neck and beak protrudes. They could be a demonstration of the amazing ingenuity of a high-tech camping gadget. An occasional loner on the wing, flying low over the water, demonstrates the size and power of the animal when fully folded out.

At sunrise the wading birds and other water fowl are out at first light, always already there by the time I arrive. Most of the smaller ones I don’t recognize, although I am familiar with the names: terns, grebes, willets, western sandpipers, curlews, greater and lesser yellowlegs. They roll on the tongue like burbling water, out of time and history, comforting like the birds themselves.

They offer us a little hope: no matter how artificial the environment, no matter how degraded, life goes on. For now at least.




August 2017
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